Reaching People in Need, One Text at a Time

By United Way of King County, on February 8, 2022 | In Breaking the Cycle of Poverty, Covid-19, Fighting Homelessness, Helping Students Graduate, News, Racial Equity

Wouldn’t it be GR8 if texting could help local college students, people facing eviction or those needing food gain better access to resources and services? United Way of King County is doing just that, THX to a platform regularly used in the health care industry.

Last August, United Way purchased a texting service from CareMessage, a San Francisco-based platform for underserved populations, to bolster its communication methods among communities in need amid the COVID-19 pandemic. With fewer people receiving services in person and Internet service often unreliable, organizations like United Way are turning to texting as a fast and efficient way to reach people on a large scale.

CareMessage is a patient engagement activation platform usually used by health centers, such as free clinics. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, CareMessage was offered to facilities to communicate with their patients. During COVID-19, CareMessage expanded its mission to facilitate safety net health care organizations to underserved patients and made its technology more readily available to the general population.

And when social distancing and trepidation over gathering in public spaces left many King County residents leery about heading outdoors for even the most basic of necessities, changes were needed to improve on outdated outreach methods.

Enter United Way’s Ending Poverty & Homelessness and Rental Assistance teams. The texting service is free and provided only to those who sign up. People receive texts about public benefits programs such as SNAP (Basic Food/EBT). United Way also texted community college students about financial aid and workshops, and texted rental assistance information to those struggling to make monthly payments.

For example, last September United Way sent out a free text message survey question to 4,295 local residents:

Hi, it’s United Way of King County. Do you, or anyone in your household, need help buying groceries? You could be eligible for BASIC FOOD. A household of four can receive over $600 a month and benefits increase 10/1/21! Text A, B, or C:  A) Yes, I have Basic Food B) No, tell me more C) No, I don’t think I’m eligible.

About 28 percent of people responded to the text, answering A (417 respondents), B (574 respondents) or C (161 respondents). Those who responded A received a follow-up text about the benefits increase and a list of places where funds can be used. Those who responded B received another text with a hotline number and website to contact.

The United Way hotline received 70 calls within an hour of the second text being sent.

United Way conducted a similar texting survey question to 459 Benefits Hub recipients; about 27 percent responded.

“COVID-19 reduced our ability to promote programs and resources in-person. CareMessage allows us to meet our community where they are at through streamlined text outreach,” said Nelly Evans, United Way Food Security Program Coordinator. “Having access to this platform encourages us to work more collaboratively, across teams to align campaign goals.”

Texting for outreach is one example of how United Way seeks to redefine ways organizations provide resources and services to people in need during and after the pandemic. Another is our DoorDash home delivery program, which completed 206,000 grocery deliveries in 2021.

“Texting,” Evans said, “helps us to give clients and community members one-stop resources that address the social determinants of health: economic stability by increasing access to federal benefits like rent assistance, Basic Food (SNAP), child tax credits, federal student aid and more.”

Texting helps us to give clients and community members one-stop resources that address the social determinants of health: economic stability by increasing access to federal benefits like rent assistance, Basic Food, child tax credits, federal student aid and more.

Nelly Evans, United Way Food Security Program Coordinator

College students lead those who have signed up to receive CareMessage notifications from United Way. The service is always free, users can discontinue by typing one of 18 words for opting out.

“About 98 percent of text messages are read within two minutes of receipt,” said Nora Marsh, director of marketing at CareMessage. “Lot of people will have unlimited texting today, but they would still need to use phone minutes to check their voice mail. They will have access to a cell phone but no access to a computer. So, checking email happens a lot more sporadically than checking text messages.”

United Way will continue to seek more ways to use online platforms to reach underserved populations and to increase equitable access in ways that work for people and meet them where they are. From our POV, it simply makes sense.


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